Thousands of people from different parts of the country, particularly the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh made their way to Jantar Mantar for a protest in May 2017. The protest was called by the Bhim Army, a Dalit rights organisation and socio-political movement with an impressive presence in western Uttar Pradesh.
The protest was against the violence which had rocked Saharanpur district in Uttar Pradesh in the same month. On May 5, a Thakur mob allegedly burned down 25 houses which belonged to the Dalit community, in which 15 Dalits were also injured.
Since then, a lot has changed. The founder of the movement, the 31-year-old Dalit lawyer Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan has been languishing in prison ever since he was first arrested by the UP Police in June 2017. Then, he was granted bail in November 2017 by the Allahabad high court but he was again booked hours later under the draconian National Security Act.
This movement which has started to gain momentum in western Uttar Pradesh somehow fits into the larger movement of Dalit struggle which has been led by veteran Dalit politician Mayawati in the state of Uttar Pradesh since the 1980s.
In a Quint report which was published in January 2017, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan is quoted as saying, “We need a BSP… but we also need a Bhim Army.”
However, despite the large media coverage of the Bhim Army, the arrest of Chandrashekhar Ravan, support from the leader of the Bhim Army himself, Mayawati has refused to come out in support of either the organisation or the leader.
A UP police report had come out which had linked the Bhim Army with her brother, who is also an important leader in the BSP. Dismissing such claims, she had said in May 2017, “The report of this secret division of the UP government is entirely politically motivated, false and incorrect.”
She had also said, “In Saharanpur district, the people of BSP believe that the organisation named as Bhim Army is entirely a product of the BJP.”
It must be noted that her electoral success in Uttar Pradesh, despite her being the most prominent Dalit politician in the nation has not just been due to the support she has received from the Dalit community. It is widely believed that in 2007, Mayawati became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh due to her success in creating a Dalit-Brahmin alliance and securing a large chunk of votes from both the communities. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, she had given tickets to 20 Brahmin candidates, more than any other political party.
Since the Bhim Army is an organisation which isn’t involved in electoral politics, it can focus largely on Dalit interests and doesn’t need to pander to the interests of upper caste communities. However, since the BSP is a political party whose ultimate objective is to capture power in the state, it has no option but to expand its voter base and work for the interests of other communities apart from Dalits.
According to the 2011 Census, SC population of Uttar Pradesh is 20.5% in the entire state. Even within the Dalit community, not everyone votes for Mayawati. As a result, it’s only natural that Mayawati would be looking to increase her outreach, especially before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
However, despite such harsh words from the BSP supremo and her alliance with an upper caste community for electoral purposes, there doesn’t seem to have been much love lost from the side of the Bhim Army supporters.
Parliament Street saw a protest again on April 18, 2017, called by the same Bhim Army. Two of its crucial demands were the release of the Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, the quashing of the FIRs against people belonging to the Dalit community which had been registered during the the course of the ‘Bharat Bandh’ on April 2, which had been called by various Dalit rights organisations to protest against a Supreme Court order of March 20 which resulted in what many have described as the ‘dilution’ of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Around 70 people gathered together in what was described as a ‘symbolic protest’ by Sanjeev Mathur, the Bhim Army defence committee convenor. On being asked about his opinions on Mayawati, he says, “See, Behnji is our leader and will remain so. Whoever is under this illusion, let me say on behalf of the Bhim Army comrades to the populace that we consider Behnji to be our leader and we are not going to do anything against the BSP.”
When asked about her lack of support to the Bhim Army, he says, “That’s okay. She is elder and it is her right. She thinks that there is a lack of understanding in us, then we shall learn from her.”
He also points out that despite the Bhim Army having nothing to do with electoral politics, many members of the organisation in their individual capacity did campaign for the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly elections.
And such positive feelings are shared by most of the people the author spoke to at the protest gathering.
Punit Singh Baudh, a 43-year-old Dalit businessman who resides in Ghaziabad, said, “Behnkumari Mayawati… they got irritated that a Dalit woman became the chief minister four times.
Despite the fact that Mayawati has refused to lend support to the Bhim Army and has even linked it to the BJP, it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the supporters who want Chandrashekhar to be freed. Om Prakash Jatav, a 48-year-old labourer from Haryana who claims to have travelled 125 kilometres just to attend this protest, says, “Mayawati is our leader and so is Chandrashekhar.”
Mayawati has been the most prominent Dalit politician India has seen till date. One benefit which people belonging to the Dalit community have experienced is the registration of cases against Scheduled Castes by the police, which have been higher whenever she has been in power in Uttar Pradesh. While she has been criticised for certain moves which have been criticised by the opposition and political commentators, such as the building of statues across the state, they have been welcomed by people belonging to the Dalit community. According to a report in The Caravan, a bureaucrat who worked closely with Mayawati during her tenure said, “Her projects were memorials with a strong motivation to symbolise Dalit self-respect and rule.”
Despite the lack of support provided by Mayawati to a Dalit organisation, it becomes difficult for its supporters to go against her because they believe that a large reason for the empowerment of the Dalit community in the last 20 years or so has been because of her.